Doubts and questions scurried in her mind. It was just over three months since that afternoon in the blazing sun. How could she be three months pregnant and not know about it? Horror filled her at the prospect—pregnancy had never been part of her life plan.
As soon as the Sergeant pulled up to the security station at the base she got out. No one came within sight as she walked to her room, but once she was there it was obvious someone had been very busy in that short time. Her space had been completely cleared. All that was left was a large duffel bag that leaned against the foot of the stripped bed. She opened it and her hurt deepened. Someone had taken methodical care to pack away her few personal possessions. It felt invasive and pointed—and why were the soldiers she’d considered more than colleagues so conspicuously absent?
Blocking the stabbing wounds and setting her mind to the task, Stella quickly phoned for a taxi to collect her at the gate, then stepped out of her drill uniform and pulled on the first things that came to hand—an old grey tee shirt, black yoga pants. She stuffed her feet into thin, flat-soled trainers. And she added a sweatshirt, because despite the early autumn heat she was freezing.
She left the clothing she’d removed in a neat folded pile on the end of her bed. Then she hoisted her duffel onto her back and walked past Security.
In and out in less than eight minutes. Not that her father was ever going to be impressed by anything she did. No matter how hard she tried.
‘San Felipe airport, please,’ she instructed the taxi driver, and slumped back against the seat.
A mere twenty minutes later she was inside the light, airy terminal. Stella ignored the award-winning architecture and walked straight to the nearest airline desk, requesting a ticket on the next plane out.
The airline attendant smiled and helpfully started typing, but only moments later confusion—and caution—lit her eyes. She kept on staring at her computer screen and tightened her grip on the passport Stella had handed to her.
‘I’m sorry...’ she said, then her voice trailed off.
Stella stiffened, casting a careful check about her. There were two uniformed soldiers in the corner. And another one heading her way. The Captain who’d been in her father’s office.
‘I need you to come with me, Ms Zambrano.’ He reached out and took her passport from the airline attendant’s hand.
Stella didn’t move.
‘Ms Zambrano?’ he repeated quietly. ‘This way.’
Not ‘Lieutenant’. Not any more. Already she’d been stripped of the title that had taken her six years to earn.
She’d been rejected by the San Felipe army initially so she’d gone to New Zealand—her mother’s birth country. As she held dual citizenship she’d been able to train there. She’d worked so hard, risen through the ranks, until she’d been able to return to San Felipe with a record that not even her father could ignore. She was too good. She’d transferred, determined to maintain the rapid ascent of her career.
Now she studied her superior officer. Only he no longer had that role, because she was a civilian. He had no authority over her. And she could take him down and run. She’d had excellent training and she’d felled taller, bigger men.
‘You don’t want to cause a scene here,’ he said, accurately reading her flash of rebellion.
‘I will carry your bag.’ The Captain already had it.
She felt like snatching it back, screaming in defiance and stamping her foot. But it would get her nowhere. And the Captain was right—she didn’t want to make a scene. She wanted to quickly skulk away and sort out her life in obscurity.
The airline attendant’s brittle smile widened into an almost comical expression of relief as Stella silently fell into step with the soldier.
‘You were at the palace,’ she said, as they walked swiftly. ‘At my f—’ She checked herself. ‘At the General’s office. Why are you here now?’
‘I’m following orders.’
He kept his eyes front and didn’t answer.
‘Whose orders, Captain?’ she asked again.
‘This way, Ms Zambrano.’
It couldn’t have been her father who’d sent him after her—he’d have said something back in his office. He’d made it clear he’d washed his hands of her. Which meant it was someone else making the call. Someone even more highly ranked.
If she’d felt cold before, she was hypothermic now. Under-dressed and vulnerable, she missed the weight and strength of her boots.